A prof’s view of the Ryerson racism report

Academic life gets complicated when tolerance and freedom clash.

Ryerson University released its sweeping report into racism on campus, yesterday, and the full text of the report was just made available on its web site today. Looking over its  recommendations, one sees numerous suggestions that will, if implemented, surely make Ryerson a better place. Still, in the areas where the report deals with the issues of warming the “chilly climate” at the University, especially when it comes to teaching, I suspect many readers will be struck by just how vexing the intellectual problems are.

Related: Ryerson racism probe seeks to coddle students

These questions are not unique to Ryerson, of course. I arrived at the University of Western Ontario as an undergraduate when the furor was raging over psychologist Phillipe Rushton and his research on racial differences; my view then was the same as it is now, that Rushton’s work should be judged by his peers in the field of psychology, not by protesters or politicians. Not too long after that, a scathing report came out at Western about the “chilly climate” for women on campus, which sparked wide-spread debate. Here at my own university, I was once shocked when student advocates told members of my school that we should never use racist language, even if it meant avoiding teaching classics of literature like Huckleberry Finn. We didn’t have the skills, we were told, to deal with the complexities of the issue.

I have been to Ryerson, by the way, though I did not spend enough time there to know it intimately, so I freely admit that I cannot speak to the specific conditions there. But I do find the larger questions intriguing, and would like to venture a few more thoughts occasioned by the new report.

Consider, for example, recommendation 6C, which calls for a stronger anti-discrimination policy at the school, and for every course outline to include a statement to the effect that all individuals are to be treated “with respect and dignity.” So far, so good. I include such a statement in my own syllabi, though my university does not require it. But note carefully what follows:

While ideas will be debated vigorously, no one should be made to feel
disrespected because of their race, language, religion, gender, sexual difference or ability.

Now things get tricky. Notice the emphasis on feelings, a theme that runs throughout the report. What would it take to make someone feel disrespected? I sometimes teach Robertson Davies’ novel The Rebel Angels, which includes a scene in which the main character sings a racist song in public. Could assigning that book cause a “racialized” student (an interesting word used frequently in the report) to feel disrespected? Does it matter that the character in question is generally represented positively? Does it matter that she later feels ashamed of her actions? Shakespeare poses a host of similar difficulties. Problematic depictions of race? Check (Titus Andronicus). Religion? Check (Merchant of Venice). Gender? Check (all of them). Ability? Check (Richard III). In short, how does one reconcile free and vigourous debate with the difficult need to not make anyone ever feel disrespected? Where does one draw the line?

In fact, the task force has an answer to that. In the section on academic freedom, they propose a limit to free academic discourse:

Issues of academic freedom are contested since there is a fine line between free speech and hatemongering. A person has crossed the line when their protest/speech diminishes another person’s self-respect and identity.

To be fair, the report freely acknowledges that while this may be the line, drawing it in actual cases, academic and legal, is not a simple matter. And elsewhere it makes several statements about the importance of academic freedom. Still, I wonder about the emphasis placed on the emotional state of the student or professor whose self-respect and identity are supposed to be at risk here. Consider the following anecdote, given as an example of the “chilly climate” at the university:

The instructor used powerful PowerPoint images of women being stoned to death. She then used a Canadian case in which a father and brother were charged with the death of their daughter/sister. The case was presented as an example of honour killing common in Muslim societies. The student found the presentation of the material patently biased against Muslims. It left the impression that all Muslims acted this way. This was particularly difficult to deal with for Muslim students who wore identifiable markers such as hijabs in class. They felt that all eyes were on them and that their colleagues were either hostile or judgmental – which made it difficult to even look up in class. Subsequent to their complaint, the instructor rejected their concerns saying that they were over-reacting and offered them the option of making their own presentation about their understanding of Islam. The students argued that the environment was too poisoned for them to be able to address all that had been said over two lectures and that they no longer felt comfortable speaking up in class on the issue. The instructor said it was sad they felt that way but there was nothing she could so [sic].

This story seems to be told to show how insensitive instructors can be to the needs of their students, but how badly has the instructor acted here? She presented factual information about a pressing social issue, and when students complained that it was biased, offered them the chance to present their own presentation on the issue, but the students refused. Now, I was not there, so I cannot comment on whether the presentation was a good one or not, but based on the account provided in the report, I am troubled by the underlying assumption that the real problem is not what was presented but how it made the students feel. The students “found” the presentation biased and no rebuttal was possible because “they no longer felt comfortable” in the class. Notice, too, that the professor is not accused of saying that all Muslims acted in this way, only of leaving that “impression” according to the Muslim students.

The implication made both by the story and the more explicit statements is that academics must always take care to avoid causing discomfort, at least when that discomfort arises from one’s most deeply felt convictions. But isn’t it often the role of a professor to cause discomfort in students? When I teach Oscar Wilde, for example, I discuss Wilde’s sexuality and ask students to consider whether there are sub-textual homo-erotic themes in The Importance of Being Earnest. I know this makes some of my students uncomfortable — they literally squirm in their seats — because their cultural, religious, and sexual backgrounds have taught them that such things are not to be openly discussed, and if they are, to be the subjects of jokes, not serious contemplation. But I think that discomfort is good. Whatever their conclusions about Oscar Wilde, they should be confronted with ideas that they find troubling because that is where there is often opportunities for real intellectual growth. But, again, based only on the evidence at hand,  I worry that the Ryerson students who saw the presentation about honour killings were not inclined to ask difficult questions about their religion because tolerance seems to tell us that such things are beyond debate.

I’m not trying to suggest that there should be no line at all when it comes to respect for others. I would not maintain that anything goes in academic discourse. In fact, on exactly one occasion, I told a student that his remarks were not acceptable in my class after the student complained that “Americans” were idiots and war-mongers. I cut him off and firmly told him that characterizing a whole nationality in a negative way was a non-starter. I think I did the right thing, and I would do it again if it came up, but it never has. Maybe the climate isn’t so chilly here.

The point I am trying to make is this: the Ryerson taskforce has rightly called for a more inclusive atmosphere where diversity is welcomed and celebrated. Moreover, they have quite rightly acknowledged that intellectual freedom makes fostering such an atmosphere complicated.

But it may turn out to be even more complicated than they think.